“Are you disappointed?” he said, as we heaped pineapple fried rice onto our plates. “Do you feel like this is not special enough?”
My partner and I celebrated our first relationship anniversary last weekend. I’d never celebrated an anniversary before, and, while it did not feel particularly special to be sitting at my kitchen table in yoga pants eating Thai food, I wasn’t sure that I really cared about specialness. “What’s really the point of an anniversary anyway?” I asked through a mouthful of pad see ew, “To say we managed not to break up this year?”
“No. It’s like: ‘Hey, you’re special to me. Let’s celebrate this thing we created,'” he said.
It’s not that I needed him to defend the idea of an anniversary to me (though I appreciated his willingness to do so), it’s that sometimes I feel it’s my job to maintain skepticism when it comes to the rituals we associate with romance. We all seem to have a lot of ideas about what you’re supposed to say or do in love and these ideas have the power to make us feel either smug or inadequate–or, absurdly, both at once. And I just wanted to tread thoughtfully toward the anniversary celebration.
“I think I should write something about anniversaries,” I said. “People don’t really talk about how weird they are.”
“Are you gonna write about this?” my partner asked, glancing around at the takeout containers propped between haphazard stacks of books.
“Ugh.” He slumped. “I knew I should’ve tried harder.”
It took me a while to pinpoint why anniversaries feel weird to me: I think it’s the implication that the real value of a relationship is in its duration. Don’t get me wrong, I am genuinely impressed by people who manage to stay committed for decades. And I love almost any excuse for a celebration (as evidenced by the fact that I just typed the phrase “pick up dog cake” into my calendar–Roscoe and I have spent a full six years together!). But duration is rarely the best indicator of a relationship’s success. Certainly most of us can cite long, miserable marriages.
I spent the entirety of my last serious relationship advocating for special occasions: birthdays, holidays, Valentine’s Day. Why couldn’t we make a big deal out of things just once? And now, somehow, I have become the one who says, “Why can’t you eat take out in spandex on an anniversary?” Obviously you can and we did, but it felt problematically mundane. So we shook off our Halloween hangovers, changed clothes and went out for cocktails and dessert.
It was a nice night. Still, I never quite escaped the feeling that there was something romantic that I should be doing or saying. Over chocolate mousse I fretted that there was an appropriately sentimental note that the evening hadn’t quite hit. It’s probably this exact feeling that all those people who are “just not really into” anniversaries are trying to avoid.
Maybe I should’ve said something to him about how grateful I am for his unfailing kindness. I know I’ve already said something along these lines to a bazillion strangers on the internet (in both type and video, no less) but maybe I should’ve told him. It’s so nice to know (not to hope or to believe–to know) that even when we disagree–even when we almost break up–he is kind. But there is more to it than a nice feeling. Love is an inherently risky proposition. Writing about love is often uncomfortable. Knowing my partner will be kind, that he is in fact kind to his core, is part of what makes this risk feel manageable to me. All of this is what I should’ve said.
Instead, we found ourselves in a discussion of the role of happiness in a relationship: Is it your job to make your partner happy?
Him: But your happiness is important to me.
Me: I think our relationship is going well right now because I’m not trying to make you happy–because I’ve actually made a conscious effort to stop trying to please you.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately–about wanting to please people. It’s a habit I’m trying to temper.
I think it took me an entire year to find ease in this relationship. Partly this is due to the fact that this has been a strange year for me–nothing has felt quite normal or predictable. And partly it’s due to the fact that love never feels normal or predictable to me. It seems to involve a lot of pleasing.
I thought a sense of ease would be the natural by-product of our month-long August road trip. I thought you couldn’t possibly spend thirty days sharing a car and a tent without feeling entirely comfortable by the end of it. But that wasn’t true. I still had this lingering self-consciousness about the relationship. I sometimes looked in the campground bathroom mirror and wondered, ‘Does he think I look less pretty without mascara?’
There was so much to manage: the constant putting up and taking down of the tent, mapping and remapping the route, and the emotional and physical risks of giving a talk and going rock climbing, all of which made it impossible to step out of the immediacy of each day. I was stuck in the moment in a way that did not match the romantic idea one has of road trips. I felt intensely vulnerable–all while posting gorgeous photos of various national parks on Instagram, of course.
But then we came home and I spent the next day totally alone and I was shocked to see how good it felt. It was as if I’d come back to myself–only without having noticed that I’d been gone. I could breathe. I felt how deeply I love aloneness, the spaciousness of my wandering mind.
And maybe this is my point: I’m not good at knowing or voicing what I need. I’m much better at figuring out what other people need, what they want, what they want from me, who they think I should be. This week I came across this article on Salon, and started thinking about likability, about pleasing. So much of the ritual connected to love is about pleasing, about performing the role of partner to someone else’s exact specifications. And organizing our lives to match some sense of how we believe they should be.
On some level I think questions about our obligations to others’ happiness are deeply linked to gender. Girls are taught to please. To be pretty. To smile at strangers. To say thank you. I was a good student because I was very good at intuiting who adults wanted me to be. (And I am sometimes annoyed at my own students because they can’t–or won’t–do this.) But I am having some doubts about the value of pleasing. For one, pleasing people has never made me a good life partner.
We really took our time deciding to start this relationship so I think when we did commit, it felt serious—at least it did for me. I remember a friend of mine saying that when she first got together with the man who is now her husband, she thought: well at least that’s out of the way, meaning the whole finding a life partner business. But it wasn’t. It would be years before they got married—years that included a long distance relationship, a break up and a lot of international border crossings. I also thought something like this when I started this relationship after years of online dating: life partner box checked.
But this, too, has not been so simple.
What should your relationship look like after a year? If not buying a condo, shouldn’t you at least be flipping through furniture catalogues? And sharing a Google calendar? Referring to the dog as “ours”? Shouldn’t you know exactly what you want?
“Do you ever talk about the future?” someone asked me in a phone interview that week, referring to my status with that thirty-six questions guy. “We do,” I said. “But I don’t want to talk about it.”
One of the things I’m writing about in my book is this idea of scripts–that there is a way a life should go. We have micro-scripts (for what you say over anniversary desserts) and macro-scripts (for how a relationship should progress at a week, a month, a year, ten years) and these scripts are incredibly, frustratingly powerful. It’s hard to break away from them. But the reason I think I finally feel ease in this relationship is that I just decided not to care. What do I want from my relationship? Well, I have some ideas, but I’m not stuck on them. I want us to buy the dog more cakes. I want to show more gratitude. I want to take a break from telling large audiences I love this guy, but I’m not hung up on that one.